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A person holds a sign with words Stand with Gaza on it

Critics of the Antisemitism Awareness Act say it could lead colleges to suppress speech that’s critical of Israel in order to comply with federal civil rights law.

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Debates over what precisely constitutes antisemitism have ramped up since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in early October, as colleges nationwide have grappled with growing unrest among students and faculty. Now Congress is adding its voice to the conversation.

The House voted 320 to 91 Wednesday to codify a broad definition of antisemitism into federal civil rights law—one that some in higher education worry could have a chilling effect on free speech on campus. The vote was bipartisan, as was the opposition: 133 Democrats joined 187 Republicans to vote yes. Supportive lawmakers, concerned about the wave of campus protests and allegations of antisemitic incidents and chants, said the legislation was necessary to protect Jewish students.

“Congress should not only establish a firm commitment to the basic definition of antisemitism, but it ought to speak with clarity: this is wrong,” Representative Marc Molinaro, a New York Republican, said of the campus protests and rising antisemitism. “Perhaps if we had said that decades ago, we wouldn’t see the escalation that we’re seeing today. Perhaps if college presidents simply accepted responsibility for the safety and security of their Jewish students, we wouldn’t see the violence we have today.”

Under the legislation, the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) would have to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism when enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race and national origin. OCR, which has opened 137 investigations into complaints alleging discrimination based on shared ancestry—which includes Jews, Muslims and members of other ethnic or religious groups—is already using the definition in its enforcement of Title VI, so the legislation likely won’t have an immediate impact on campuses.

Critics say the definition conflates criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism, which could lead college administrators to further crack down on anti-Israel protests.

The IHRA definition says in part that “antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” As examples, it cites calls for the killing or harming of Jews in the name of radical ideology, making stereotypical allegations about Jews, denying the Holocaust, comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, or holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel. Dozens of countries and a majority of states have adopted the definition.

Backers of the Antisemitism Awareness Act, including several leading Jewish organizations, say the legislation will provide more clarity for agencies tasked to enforce Title VI. The Council on American-Islamic Affairs has condemned the legislation, saying it ignores anti-Palestinian racism and conflates criticism of the Israeli government with antisemitism.

Others in higher education, along with First Amendment and civil rights groups, are concerned that such a sweeping definition of antisemitism could chill free speech on campuses and affect academic freedom.

“It undercuts the whole academic enterprise,” said Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and author of The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate. Stern compared the legislation to efforts in Republican-led states to restrict teachings about race and gender. “This is doing the same thing about issues in Israel,” he said.

The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration, but its prospects in the upper chamber are unclear. Politico reported Thursday that Senate leaders from both parties were gauging their members’ support for the bill. The White House has not yet weighed in on the legislation.

‘Overly Broad’ or ‘Game-Changing’?

Stern himself helped to write the IHRA definition. But he has opposed efforts to codify it into federal law for years.

Originally, he said, the definition was aimed at improving data collection internationally about antisemitism and hate crimes. According to the IHRA’s website, it was meant to guide the organization’s work on combating antisemitism and to provide, at an international level, a starting point for discussion.

Stern said that the Antisemitism Awareness Act distorts the intent of the definition and could lead colleges to suppress speech out of fears of legal liability.

“If you’re at a point where somebody’s saying something and you’re thinking somebody’s going to file a Title VI complaint or a lawsuit, and you haven’t condemned it or you haven’t tried to suppress it, you’re opening up the school for suits,” he said. “I’m more worried about the chilling effect of how this works.”

Critics of the legislation say under the IHRA definition, colleges could violate Title VI by inviting Palestinian speakers to campus or funding a panel discussion about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The American Association of University Professors argued in a statement Wednesday that the legislation creates “overly broad statutory restrictions” and that teachers and students might avoid “assigning reading materials or engaging in classroom discussions about controversial issues concerning the state of Israel or Zionism.”

Kenneth Marcus, the founder of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law who led the OCR during the Trump administration, has worked for years to broaden the definition of what speech and conduct can be considered antisemitic and has filed numerous civil rights complaints alleging Title VI violations. He called the legislation a “game-changing response” to the increase in campus antisemitism.

“The IHRA definition is the only definition that has been embraced as authoritative by dozens of countries and by governors or legislatures in a majority of states,” Marcus said. “This legislation will ensure that the United States remains aligned with best practices internationally.”

The legislation will codify that Jewish students are protected under Title VI, Marcus said. Previously that interpretation has been part of informal guidance documents, along with the executive order.

Although OCR has been using the IHRA definition since 2019, Marcus said few U.S. universities consistently apply the IHRA definition.

“From conversations with numerous administrators, I can say that many university leaders are unaware that the IHRA definition is already woven into OCR’s current, active guidance. If this legislation is passed, it will remove all doubt.”

The co-sponsors of the legislation insisted during the floor debate Wednesday that the bill protects free speech and allows for criticism of Israel.

“I ensured that,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat and co-sponsor of the legislation. “It was critical to me. it doesn't allow calls for the destruction or elimination of the Jewish state. But, it certainly allows criticism of Israel.”

Instead, Gottheimer said the legislation “condemns traditional hatred, and the ugly, modern antisemitism that we’re seeing on college campuses.”

Stern said that while he doesn’t like calls for the destruction of Israel, that’s political speech, which should be allowed on campuses. “When you start defining what speech you aren’t going to allow, that’s inherently draconian,” he said.

Stern and others argue that codifying the definition won’t actually address the root causes of antisemitism.

“If you look at how antisemitism actually works, this will backfire,” he said. The growing vilification of immigrants, Muslims and other groups in the U.S., he said, primes the population to identify another group as a threat—constituting a “conveyor belt to antisemitism.”

“I’m much more concerned about that than I am with an 18-year-old who may be saying ‘From the river to the sea’ and probably doesn’t know which river or which sea.”

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